Sino the times

Fall Arts Preview: Bay Area museums and galleries home in on Asia
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Sui Jianguo's Made in China (2005)

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If the world-class flash of the Beijing Olympics isn't enough of an example of China's rising international cultural power, we'll have continued reminders at Bay Area museums and galleries in the coming months. It's perhaps a tipping point: Pace Beijing, a big outlet for a major western gallery, just opened, signaling a market vetting of art currently being made in China. In fact, a wide swath of Asia will the focus of the international art world this fall with a confluence of biennials — and a triennial — that rival the 2007 European "grand tour" of the "Venice Biennale," "Documenta," and "Münster Sculpture Project." This September sees the opening of biennials in Singapore; Taipei, Taiwan; Yokohama, Japan; Guangzhou and Shanghai in China; and Busan and Gwangju in Korea, the latter organized by Okwui Enwezor, dean of the San Francisco Art Institute.

So it does seem fitting, given our Pacific Rim position, that we at least reflect this activity. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art got a jump-start in the Sino-surveys, as "Half-Life of a Dream: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Logan Collection," opened prior to the Olympics and continues through Oct. 5. It's a lively crash course in its subject, though the museum did give us one in 1999 — the pivotal "Inside Out: New Chinese Art," which included most of the artists on view now. The current show has the opportunity to provide scope — with newer works augmenting some classics — and the mix seems particularly smooth, no doubt because we have become far more familiar with China in general and with at least some of the cultural conditions that fuel the work.

"Half Life" satisfies with 50 pieces of painting, sculpture, and installations, but it seems modest in comparison to "Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection," a show that will fill almost the entire UC Berkeley Art Museum from Sept. 10–Jan. 4, 2009, with 141 works by 96 artists. Both exhibitions provide the opportunity to bring artists here and generate public dialogues, panel discussions, artist talks, and film screenings, which will play out in various venues around town. Berkeley's show brings Ai Weiwei, a breakout international art star with intellectual buzz, out for a Bay Area residency.

One can't help but notice that both these shows have "collection" in the title revealing a troubling sense of western ownership — a scenario suggesting that such works wouldn't come to our attention without patronage. In this case, the collectors take on a passionate, fact-filled advocacy role: Swiss collector Uli Sigg has been supporting art in China for two decades, while Kent Logan, who has acquired works with his wife Vicki, writes extensively on his collection in the SFMOMA show's catalog. Apparently it takes vision — and packaging — to float this work into a western context.

Other shows continue the focus on Asia, including Chinese sculptor Zhan Wang's solo turn at Haines Gallery (Sept. 4-Oct. 4). His supershiny metal scholar's rock is a highlight in the de Young's sculpture garden, and that museum has organized a historical show with themes that may prove to be an interesting counterpoint: "Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900–1970" (Oct. 25-Jan. 18, 2009), which surveys work by Asian and Asian American artists who worked in the United States — albeit at a time when the art world was less heated and international than it is today. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Mills College Art Museum expand the geographic scope with, respectively, Manila-Bay Area exchange show "Galleon Trade: Bay Area Now 5 Edition" (Sept. 4–Oct. 19) and "The Offering Table: Women Activist Artists from Korea" (Sept. 6-Dec. 7).

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